As I was scrolling down my newsfeed a couple of weeks ago, among the videos of mischievous pets and masses of articles, one piece of news caught my attention; the headline read: “David Cameron: More Muslim women should ‘learn English’ to help tackle extremism.” I rolled my eyes at reading yet another stereotype aimed at myself and other Muslim women. Recently, Donald Trump has been stealing the stage for inciting religious hatred and stereotypes, particularly when it comes to Muslims. Clearly, the boxing of all Muslim women into one homogenous group is a global trend – and by trends, I’m not referring to the great ones that help our world to progress into a brighter future. Actually, this rhetoric by certain politicians has kept some of society rooted in the past.
Growing up in what is officially the least integrated town in the UK (Boston), I had to combat my fair share of prejudice. This university has given me the perfect opportunity to tackle some of these issues, as it has great diversity and an open-minded attitude, an environment quite unlike that of my home town. In my nearly three years here, I’ve realised that many people haven’t had the opportunity to learn more about Muslim women and better understand us as people, students just like them. And who better to tell you about Muslim women than Muslim women themselves?
A lot of stereotypes centre on the notion that Muslim women, particularly those who wear the hijab, are submissive, victimised and oppressed. Kamila Chalabi, currently on placement as part of her Management and Organisation degree, explained that people often assumed she was a ‘traditional homemaker’, and asked her whether she had children. According to historians, this idea originally stems from the colonial period, in which the British and French used the rhetoric of Western societies saving Eastern women as justification for their imperialistic and oppressive occupation. In modern day use, these Orientalist stereotypes portray the East as being stuck in archaic times, whereas the West is both progressive and democratic. All of the students I spoke to did not fit on either side of this dichotomy. Rather, they were a mixed bag of “Eastern and Western values”. This has led many Muslim women to feel compelled to prove these stereotypes wrong. Aisha Iya Abubaker, a second-year law student who is passionate about international activism, has made her life, actions and form of dress a political statement. For example, she takes part in ‘non-traditional’ activities such as motor-biking and kickboxing. Similarly, Maab Saifeldin, a Cross-Campus Officer (CCO) and student here at the university, feels that her background as an international refugee enables her to challenge assumptions about her as a female Muslim. What is clear from these actions is that being a Muslim woman is no longer a private relationship with God only, but also serves as a firm political statement that faith does not hold them back.
In fact, some may be surprised to know that many Muslim women view their faith as only one aspect of their personality, as opposed to their entire identity. For Kamila, Islam has occupied a minimal role in shaping her goals and dreams, whereas Maab feels that her faith is a constant reminder to help people and be selfless, which has consequently led her down a path of human rights advocacy. Likewise, many are inspired by the history of pioneering Muslim women. For example, it was a Muslim woman, Fatima al Fihriyya, who established the first university in 841 CE in Morocco, whereas, in the US, the first university available to women was not built until as recently as 1821. Therefore, Islam’s encouragement of education and work for both genders continues to play an integral role in raising the ambition of many Muslim women. Maariyah particularly emphasised the personal importance of education and empowerment, noting that ‘there is nothing wrong with a Muslim woman being independent.’ She also felt that her principles guide her first and foremost. These views clearly fly in the face of Cameron’s statements about Muslim women needing to be educated (first of all, many of us are at least bilingual, and second of all, our mothers are not responsible for the radicalisation of young Muslims).
As well, the media frequently uses pictures of Muslim women who cover in a Saudi-fashion. This portrayal does not consider a fundamental fact: the way in which each Muslim woman practices modesty is different- not all Muslim women choose to wear the hijab! If you keep an eye out for the ‘hijabis’ on campus, I guarantee that you will notice a great diversity in the way we cover our hair. It also must be kept in mind that wearing the hijab does not necessarily make a Muslim woman more religious. As Maariyah explained, ‘a female who does not cover her hair may be closer to God than a woman who does cover, and that’s why it’s important to not judge others.’ Aisha views modesty as a way of life rather than physical appearance; according to Zahra Sandberg, a fashion blogger, ‘kindness, humbleness and generosity are all attributes of the truly pious, modest Muslim.’ It just goes to show that Muslim women do not form a homogenous group, leading the same domestic lifestyle and practicing Islam in a uniform way.
This article is not only directed at individuals who would like to learn more about Muslim women; it is also a reminder to us Muslim men and women to not stereotype each other and hold all of us to our own personal standards. Clearly, faith and spirituality are subjective. We should remember that everyone makes mistakes (yes, even those who wear the hijab!) and that everyone is on their own spiritual journey. It is a wonderful opportunity to live in a country with so much diversity as it allows us to understand our religion from different perspectives and also to create an environment suited to our values. As Muslim women, we can cherish the struggle to strengthen our values and faith.